Arvada Center Blog

Arvada Center classes aren’t just for kids!

Ever since the Arvada Center opened its state-of-the-art Digital Creative Arts Lab (DCAL), patrons of all ages have been able to take a modernistic approach to the arts, learning and exploring new skills using 21st-century technology. Whether you are an adult hobbyist looking to get into the digital arts or an amateur artist who yearns to go pro- the DCAL studio is equipped to take your digital education to the next level.

Painting on iPad class

Once we graduate school, as adults it can often feel like our education is over, and work begins. Your time for learning is not over yet, though! Here at the Arvada Center, we believe that acquiring and becoming invested in new skills helps deepen our connection to the world around us, allowing for a more fulfilling life. This summer in the DCAL, we have many options for adults to learn the digital arts.

  • Looking to take your photography and editing skills up a notch? Explore everything from photo-editing to collage art with the Photoshop and Artmaking class.
  • Heard all about these 3D printers, but never had a chance to see one or experiment with it? 3D printing is changing design processes around the world, and at DCAL, we have TWO 3D machines ready to take a 2D sketch and breathe life into it through a simple CAD program to create a tangible 3D sculpture.
  • Do you own an iPad? You are already halfway to creating amazing works of art digitally, and you will learn video-making, green-screen technology and digital painting in our Digital Art with an iPad class.

We spoke with Digital Creative Arts Lab coordinator and instructor Tobias (Toby) Fike about the options and classes that DCAL provides to adult art appreciators of all ages.

Q: What advice do you have for an adult wanting to get into the digital arts (photoshop, filmmaking, 3D-printing)?

A: I guess, just go for it. I know it can seem intimidating, but the basics are easier than you might expect and you have to start somewhere. One of the great things that we offer is shorter workshops that can introduce you to some of our various options without too much of a time or financial commitment.

Q: Knowing Photoshop is a valuable skill to have in the Information Age. In what ways do you see it being used most effectively?

A: That’s a tough question. It can really do so much. I suppose I like using it to enhance and make photos look that much more polished and professional.

Q. What benefits do you see from drawing on a digital tablet versus paper?

A: It is different and might take some getting used to but first off, it doesn’t waste paper. You can also undo anything so there is no fear of messing up. You don’t treat it as precious and that is liberating and freeing, allowing you to try more and get experimental with your art making.

Q: What’s the most interesting thing you have seen come from using the 3D printer?

A: There is so much potential with the printers, it is fun to discover new things to print all the time. Right now I’m trying to find ways to make molds for slip casting in ceramics.

Q: What do you hope to see in the future of DCAL?

A: I want to have even more talented instructors to diversify the things we can do and offer beyond what I can even imagine right now. Besides that, I want to keep having fun with the students who are already taking classes.

The Real Life Inspirations Behind the Characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical

The Real Life Inspirations Behind the Characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical

Harlem in the 1930’s was filled with lively music, delectable soul food, and most of all- larger-than-life inhabitants that not only inspired people around the country, but also the characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical. We spoke with Gary Holmes, Co-Bookwriter and personal friend of J.C. Johnson to talk about the real-life inspirations behind these warm, funny characters.


Gary Holmes: I will tell you about the characters, but first, this: J.C. told me many stories about Harlem that helped form the whole structure and feel for the show, not just the characters. These range from the heavy presence of and respect for the church, to the idea of a successful businessman helping out others (this was VERY BIG in J.C.’s life). The church suppers, the ballrooms, the migration from the South, the Tree of Hope, the Renaissance Ballroom- all were parts of stories J.C. told me and I then did research further on…..


THE CHARACTERS: Well, I also got most of the characters and their names from the stories J.C. told me about folks he knew or worked with.  I used them as jumping-off points for the stories told in the script, but never intended for them to be ‘documentary-style’ representations; more of an homage to J.C. and his world.


GEORGE – J.C. told me many stories about him and his best buddy, Fats Waller, with whom he co-wrote (sometimes with Andy Razaf, as well) over 50 songs, among them the famous “The Joint Is Jumpin.” J.C. was quiet and reserved, Fats was always the life of the party, and as J.C. put it, “Wherever Fats was, there was a party.” So, I tried to think of George as being halfway between Fats and J.C., a mix of fun, very gregarious and the thoughtful and reflective.  Which, by the way, is how I always saw the whole show; a lot of fun, but also thoughtful and heartfelt.

By the way, George is named after George A. Whiting, who, while not a Harlem composer, was a great friend of J.C.’s and collaborator on dozens of songs, as well. J.C. (and J.C.’s wife, too) told me stories of Mr. Whiting and of his total intolerance of intolerance and how kind and true a friend he was to J.C. I did run through all of J.C.’s collaborator’s names, from Fats to Chick Webb, and not only was George a perfect name for that character, but it honors Mr. Whiting, as well.



BILLIE – Named in honor of Billie Holiday. The first song she sang (a whole story to that) was J.C.’s “Trav’lin All Alone.” However, the character’s story came from a lady named Pigfoot Mary, who was a street cart purveyor of boiled pigfeet. She came up from the South and eventually, through her entrepreneurship and good cooking, became a very rich lady, ultimately owning her own restaurant in Harlem. Pigfoot Mary, however, was a person from the 1910s into the 1920s.

It was my friend Micki Grant,  who directed the first staged reading of TRAV’LIN at the York Theater in NYC that got us from pigfeet to fried pies. While directing the reading, she advised me on many aspects of Harlem and African American life that I would not be directly familiar with. Among the gentle suggestions she gave was that the whole idea of pigfeet being a street cart item, especially in the 1930s, was wrong. And a modern audience would not respond to them well.  And that we should instead make them fried pies. Which we did – and it works extremely well, not only in a historical context but in fitting the idea into the script as a whole.

Natalie Oliver-Atherton (Billie) and Milton Craig Nealy (George Walker), Matt Gale Photography 2019



ARCHIE – Is based on J.C.’s own numbers runner (who may have been named Archie, but it could have been Eddie). J.C. described how he was a nice guy, just a neighborhood businessman, really. And how he would come by every Monday (I think) morning and how J.C. would be waiting for him. That the stage Archie is a scamp came from J.C.’s stories about the fighter Joe Louis, with whom J.C. had a great friendship.

Joe Louis

Archie is a bit of a lady’s man, as very much was Mr. Louis, but not to the same extent. Archie is more of a flirt and a big talker, but far less real action.  (TRAV’LIN is a 1930s style romantic musical comedy, after all!)


ROZ – Is modeled after Rose Morgan, a very well-known and successful hairdresser who worked her way up to owning the most successful hairdressing salon in Harlem. AND…she was also married – for a time – to JOE LOUIS! (The rough template for Archie!) However, Roz and Archie make out much better and happier than Rose and Joe did, so it’s just the basic set-up that I copied.

A side note: For a time, we tried to have Roz also be based on Madam C.J. Walker, who was a very successful businesswoman in the early 1900s in creating various hair straightening formulas (popular at the time) and fashion items. But it was dropped for two reasons – all of her success happened 20 years before the time frame of the show (so it was old hat) and also the whole “inventing a formula” sub-plot was slowing down the main love storylines. So, we stuck with Roz being the nascent shop owner and dropped the Madam Walker storyline.

Erin Willis (Roz) and Ian Coulter-Buford (Archie), Matt Gale Photography 2019


NELSON – Started out theatrical life as Darryl (the name of a good friend of J.C.‘s, as I recall) – an insurance man.  J.C. told me stories about buying weekly insurance from him; He would stop by J.C.’s apartment like clockwork.  This storyline changed, as there was little development in what we could do with that character. So we created a new character, this one NOT based on  J.C.’s stories, but for plot reasons had to be a “trav’lin man,” one who George could help along, and it would be good to tie him into the church. So the Bible salesman came to be. The name Nelson is to honor my own best buddy, Nelson, who passed in a car accident, and who was always helping with TRAV’LIN and anything else I needed help with. And it turns out the name “Nelson” fits the character perfectly.

Nick Gordon (Nelson) and Tavia Riveé (Ella), Matt Gale Photography 2019



ELLA – Is named in honor Ella Fitzgerald, three of whose first recorded songs were written by J.C. and who not only co-wrote a song with him, but also recorded several more. However, Ella started out her stage life very briefly as Alberta.  This was in honor of Alberta Hunter, who also sang many J.C. Johnson songs. The whole idea of Ella going to nursing school comes from Ms. Hunter’s own later-in-life decision to give up singing and go to nursing school herself and in fact become a nurse for something like twenty-five years before going back into a much-heralded late-life return to the stage.

Alberta Hunter

Finding Our Center – the Arvada Center’s New Brand

The new visual identity of the Arvada Center represents the multi-faceted and dynamic work that takes place in our building every day.

Conceived by local Denver agency AOR, the new visual identity of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities is a multi-faceted, dynamic representation of who we are and what we do. The bold colors illuminate the vibrancy that the arts and humanities bring to the lives of our visitors, while the starburst shape emulates the energy and varied nature of our cultural landscape.

As the Arvada Center celebrates our past, we simultaneously look forward to the future.

With a record of excellence spanning over 40 years, the Arvada Center maintains our commitment to curating, creating, and producing national-caliber arts, humanities, education and entertainment.

“We truly believe that there’s something for everyone when you step through our doors,” says President and CEO Philip Sneed. “We are proud to be truly multi-disciplinary and offer programs that you can not only relate to, but programs that resonate – no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from.”

Visitors of all ages and backgrounds experience the power of the arts and humanities at the Arvada Center. We embrace and leverage the power of these experiences to expand our reach to more patrons, students, teachers, volunteers, and community members.

With a new brand as our backbone, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities continues to act as a beacon of creativity in our community. Our vision is to enrich the lives of our visitors through powerful experiences in the arts and humanities – helping others to see, hear, feel, and think a little deeper. Here, you can truly find your Center.

How Trav’lin came to be

As told by Gary Holmes

I first met J.C. Johnson when I was about ten years old.

I was playing in the back room of the bank in Wurtsboro, N.Y., that my father managed. He called me into his office and introduced me to an older gentleman he said was a songwriter from New York who now lived in our village. That man turned out to be J.C. I had recently started piano lessons and was passionately interested in my lessons and music in general. I chatted a bit with Mr. Johnson about my playing and the kind of music I liked, after which he excused himself.

Within the hour, he returned with a published copy of one of his songs, BELIEVE IT BELOVED, and gave it to me. On the front he had written, “GARY, If you learn to appreciate good American music, you should succeed, J.C. Johnson”. Thus began a friendship and mentorship that lasted until J.C.’s passing in 1981.

I often visited J.C. at his house. On Saturday afternoons, I would go to the living room concerts he held with fellow musicians. A few were from J.C.’s past career, most notably the violinist and conductor, Billy Butler. But mostly, I would bug him to tell me stories – stories of Harlem and the people he knew there, famous and otherwise. He did, but always reluctantly – he was not one to toot his own horn.

As a teenager and in college, I started doing little shows at the barn in the town park. I would ask J.C. to come up and play a tune or two, and he was always the hit of the show. When I was driving him home from these events, he told me that as much as he liked his songs being in Broadway revues such as ME AND BESSIE and AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, he would prefer to have them in a book musical, with a full plot and characters. He also indicated that if such a project were done, he would like me to do it.

At J.C.’s wake, I mentioned this conversation to his widow Julie and said I would like to create a full show using his music. She gave the project her total support and I went to work. The first thing I did was take J.C.’s 500 songs, literally lay them out on the floor and start picking the ones I thought would fit best. The pile quickly diminished to about 40 – and looking at those 40 songs, it became clear there were three levels of love stories to be told. (J.C. mostly wrote about love!)

Out of J.C.’s songs and stories, Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical was formed.

At the same time, all the stories J.C. had told me were swirling around in my head, inspiring the characters and feel for the musical. Remarkably, although the show has changed in many ways, the basic characters, songs and plot structure have remained very similar to the original 1981 concept.

By 1984, I was a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing department of N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts. Julie and I visited Allan Shapiro, then a music and Broadway attorney, to see about legal representation for Trav’lin. Allan was instantly interested in the project, became passionate about it as well, and took on the role of creative producer. In that capacity, he was intimately involved in the creative and writing process.

Then, in the late 1980s, life got in the way and the script was put on the shelf. Allan and I went on to other cities and projects until 2003, when I decided to start up with Trav’lin again. I contacted Allan and asked him to come back to the project, this time as co-author. And then, well….life got in the way once more, and we didn’t start working in earnest until mid-2005.

In 2007, we had a private reading of the show in New York, followed by successful public readings in 2009 and 2010 at The York Theatre Company in Citicorp Center as part of their Developmental Reading Series. Then in October, 2010, nearly 30 years after the journey began, Trav’lin was fully staged for the very first time as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The journey continues to unfold . . .

Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical plays at the Arvada Center from April 9 – 28.

Get to know Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical!

A funny and heartfelt look at love, Trav’lin rediscovers the music of Harlem Renaissance songwriter J.C. Johnson. His songs were recorded by legendary jazz and blues artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Keep reading to learn more about Johnson, the time period this musical takes place in, and the men who adapted these tunes for the musical theatre stage.


  • It’s the 100th year anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance! The 100th year anniversary celebration started Fall of 2018 and goes on until 2020. Generally considered to have spanned from 1918 to the mid-1930s, the Harlem Renaissance’s unique cultural expressions of literature, art, music and culinary arts spread rapidly across the country.


  • As World War I slowed the immigration of workers from Europe, the war effort demanded unskilled industrial labor workers, giving rise to a working class of African-Americans and a new mass culture.


  • Co-bookwriter Gary Holmes met J.C. Johnson when he was ten years old and got to attend many living room concerts that J.C. held with fellow musician friends. Gary has dedicated his life to preserving and promoting J.C. Johnson’s music and legacy.


  • Most of J.C.’s over 500 songs were about love, so it is fitting that Trav’lin would follow the story of three couples from three different generations striving to hold onto each other in a complicated time.


  • Character Billie is based off Pig Foot Mary (real name Lillian Harris Dean), a Harlem street cart entrepreneur and cook from the Mississippi Delta who turned her successful cart into a famous Harlem restaurant and brought her Southern-inspired Harlem cuisine (pigs feet, fried chicken, chitlins) to national attention.


  • The characters of Billie and Ella are named after Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, but the characters are not meant to be the real people; they are combinations of fictional and famous Harlem characters.


  • The Harlem stride style of piano playing was invented and changed the sound of jazz forever. Previously, jazz had been about brass instruments, but the addition of the piano changed the sound and mood of the music forever.


Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical runs in the Arvada Center Main Stage Theatre from April 9 – 28, 2019